Controversial Wisconsin Wetlands Bill Heads To Gov. Walker

Feb 21, 2018

Update:

Late Tuesday, the state Senate's wetland bill vote was cast along party lines, 18 Republicans for and 14 Democrats against.  Next step, Gov. Scott Walker's desk. 

Original story, February 19, 2018:

Republican Rep. Jim Steineke of Kaukauna authored the bill making it easier for landowners to fill some wetlands – not high quality systems, he says, but low-grade isolated ones.  The bill passed in the Assembly last week.

Steineke says he’s heard from his constituents and people around the state asking for a streamlined permitting process.

“Homeowners who felt their property rights were being infringed upon because of a small area on their property that had some wetland indicators but never were truly wet, true habitat. We also heard from family farmers who said they would like to expand their operations but couldn’t because of small low quality wetlands that they were unable to fill or in many cases unable to afford to mitigate,” Steineke says.

Mitigate in this case means creating a wetland somewhere else. Steineke says that can cost $75,000 an acre. “That’s simply out of reach for most farmers and homeowners,” he says.

But others around the state including environmental groups, waterfowl hunting enthusiasts have vehemently opposed the bill.

Steineke says the bill has been modified to strike a balance. “We worked for three or four months with stakeholders, with senators, with representatives helping us make the bill more realistic and more able to get passed and effecting less acres of wetlands,” he says. “ We’re talking about a bill where 98 percent of the protections on wetlands statewide stay in place.”

The bill allows development on pockets of wetland within a half mile of an urban area, and makes it easier for farmers to build structures atop small, isolated wetlands.

Steineke dismisses concerns that filling wetlands contribute to flooding. “Nothing could be further from the truth. This still protects against flooding because it ensures that storm water plans are in place, and local and state regulations are followed. Anyplace where these are filled in still have to comply with stormwater regulations."

Tom Jerow has been monitoring the bill’s evolution and sees holes in Steineke’s argument.

Jerow worked for the Wisconsin DNR for 33 years, during many of which he oversaw the state’s wetland program.

He says when urban wetlands are filled, stormwater ponds are commonly prescribed. But he says their capacities are a drop in the bucket compared to that of wetlands.

According to the EPA, one acre of wetland can hold roughly a million gallons of water.

“A stormwater pond is created to treat stormwater off of buildings and parking lots. It does help with flood control but it doesn’t provide the same functions and values of a wetland. A wetland can hold up to three feet of water over an acre.” Jerow adds, “A stormwater pond only holds a small amount of water compared to a wetland.”

Jerow sees other problems with the measure. He says the bill dramatically reduces DNR oversight.

In addition, under current law, a certified consultant, called a delineator, must have at least three-years’ experience. He or she maps out the site and submits it to the DNR. Sometimes DNR staff will inspect the site themselves.

The bill reduces the delineator standard to one year’s experience, and Jerow says, “They fill out a form send it to the DNR. The DNR has 15 days to look at it. The bill also prohibits DNR scientists from doing onsite inspections. So after the 15 days the delinator’s wetland is accepted.”

Jerow is one of 175 retired DNR scientists and natural resources professionals who have formed an organization they call Wisconsin’s Green Fire. They say their goal is to inform state decision-makers with "sound science."

Jerow says the group supports one element of the wetland bill. It calls for setting up an advisory council to agree on which wetlands can be developed and which should be protected.

The problem is, Jerow says, the group wouldn’t have a chance to come together until after the legislation becomes law.

Some audio courtesy of WisconsinEye.

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